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Huskers hope a change in routine can spark change at No. 9 Michigan State

March 5, 2019

One team is desperate for a win, struggling with injuries, coming off a difficult loss and trying to right the ship late in the season.

The other is Nebraska.

A Huskers team that has plummeted past reeling and into terminal velocity is playing its final road game of the season at Michigan State Tuesday night. The last time NU went away from Lincoln, the Huskers lost 82-53 at Michigan. The time before that it was 95-71 at Penn State. The time before that was an 81-62 loss at Purdue.

So, Nebraska is changing things up. The team left Lincoln early Monday afternoon and practiced in East Lansing. Traditionally the Huskers have practiced in Lincoln before going on the road.

Tip is set for 6 p.m. at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

“I think just staring at their Big Ten Championship banners and their Final Fours and their national championship banners will hopefully get us in the right mindset for what we’re going to face,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said Monday. “I don’t think we did a very good job as a coaching staff, especially me; we talked about what Michigan had at stake, but really empathizing with, this is what you’re going to come across.”

Will it help? Who knows. And to some, the tactic may be akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But hey, why not give it a shot?

“You have to expect the worst a little bit, you know?” Miles said when talking about going into a road environment. “These guys are going to try and gut you, and you have to try and play accordingly.

“So we’ve addressed that quite a bit and we’re going to keep addressing it, but we’re going to do it in their gym.”

Michigan State has its own problems. Three key pieces of the rotation are battling injuries. Big-bodied forward Nick Ward likely won’t play Tuesday after going for 15 points and 10 rebounds in the Spartans’ 70-64 win in Lincoln more than a month ago.

Of course, Nebraska looks different since that game too. Isaac Copeland has only been able to watch from the bench. And guard Thomas Allen, after suffering a mid-ankle sprain late against Michigan, is unlikely to play Tuesday. The sophomore was wearing a walking boot Monday.

But the physical side of things is only one part of Nebraska’s concerns.

“We’ve been preaching effort since the beginning of the season. We’ve been through rough patches, but that’s never not been a topic of discussion in the locker room,” sophomore Nana Akenten said. “I think everybody’s ready mentally. We’ve been pretty locked in this week. I think everybody knows the job they have to get done.”

Knowing and doing are two different things, of course.

No matter how things shake out this week, the Huskers (15-14, 5-13 Big Ten) appear destined for the No. 12 vs. No. 13 game next Wednesday at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. It becomes only a matter of who NU will play and who a potential second-round opponent would be.

Michigan State, on the other hand, still harbors conference title hopes despite a second loss this season to Indiana. The Spartans (23-6, 14-4) sit one game behind league-leading Purdue and a half game back of Michigan, with a season-ending matchup against the Wolverines on tap after Nebraska.

Purdue on paper has the easiest remaining schedule, meaning Michigan State likely can’t afford any slips between now and Sunday.

So the Spartans have plenty still to play for while Nebraska seems resigned to a certain fate. It will be up to the Huskers to decide how they want to respond Tuesday night.

“I really don’t think we feel threatened by anybody necessarily, because anybody can win in the Big Ten,” Akenten said. “We know what they have and we know what we have, so we’re ready to go at it.”